Health club chains are pedaling hard to woo pandemic-weary consumers back to the gym.
But some of the largest companies are taking different paths as the industry waits to see whether COVID-19 infection rates recede enough to make consumers feel safe to resume communal workouts.
Discount chains YouFit and Planet Fitness are expanding into personal fitness, wellness and nutritional counseling. Full-service chain LA Fitness is rebranding some of its locations and offering bare-bones plans to compete with discount chains’ low membership rates.
The moves follow a harrowing couple of years for the fitness industry. Quarantine orders intended to halt or slow progression of COVID-19 in spring 2020 forced closure of nearly all gyms across the country. In some states, they stayed closed for nine months. Gyms in Florida were allowed to reopen after just two months but they faced capacity restrictions and consumers’ reluctance to expose themselves to potential infection.
Efforts to get back to normal last year were hampered by an infection surge that hit the nation over the summer, pushing numerous gym chains, including YouFit, Gold’s Gym, and 24 Hour Fitness, into restructuring their debts through bankruptcy.
Vaccinations buoyed membership rates in early summer, but they receded again as the Delta variant raged across the nation in August and September. Since the pandemic began, about 22% of all U.S. gyms have closed permanently, according to industry figures.
Now, as infection and hospitalization rates fall once again with no known new variant waiting in the wings, gym owners are betting that consumers are ready to get back into shape. But they also know the old days are gone for good.
A “hybrid approach” to fitness training is here to stay, says Sami Smith, spokeswoman for the 8,000-member International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. “Many facilities are prepared or preparing to offer virtual or on-demand services for the long-term,” she said in an email.
YouFit embraces wellness
They include YouFit Health Clubs, which plans on Oct. 25 to change its name to YouFit Gyms and roll out a $20 million renovation of its 80 U.S. locations.
New offerings will include optional on-site personal training, personalized nutritional counseling via smartphone app EatLove, and access to virtual at-home classes through a new mobile app called YouFit On Demand.
The company, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and sold itself to its lenders in exchange for debt forgiveness, is staking its future on the belief that consumers are tired of working out at home and eager for results that can only be achieved with weights and machines, said Brian Vahaly, who was appointed as CEO in February.
“The big change is that people understand what they can and cannot do at home,” Vahaly said in an interview. The company’s renovation will emphasize “more diverse types of cardio training and more diverse types of strength training,” he said.
“Lifting weights is critical for young adults and for seniors. People 50 and over need strength training to maintain bone density, and they need to mix in cardio training to keep their hearts and bodies in good health.”
YouFit was founded in 2008 by Rick Berks, the creator of Planet Fitness, and both chains grew by emphasizing similar no-frills, no-judgement philosophies. Setting themselves apart from the mirror-gazing, pec-bulging culture that characterized chains like Gold’s Gym in the 1980s and 1990s, the two chains emphasized accessibility to all.
Planet Fitness offered its “judgement-free zone” while YouFit aimed to be “the most welcoming gym in the nation.”
What also set them apart were their prices.
Both chains found success advertising no-contract monthly membership fees of just $10 a month (plus startup fees, annual fees, cancellation fees and taxes where applicable), while larger, full-service health clubs commanded rates of $30 a month or more and required long-term contracts.
But the low fees bought a no-frills experience. Members got access to cycles, treadmills, weight-training machines, free weights, a locker room and little else.
Vahaly says the narrow options prevented YouFit from becoming more than an “entry-level gym and product.” He added, “We couldn’t serve people when they became more mature and sophisticated.”
YouFit will still offer a $10 monthly basic membership while its expanded offerings will continue to be priced below competitors, he said. Personal training sessions will cost as low as $30 compared to $45 to $75 at other clubs. A $24.99 premium membership will buy access to all YouFit facilities, unlimited group exercise classes, half-priced drinks and unlimited guest privileges.
The company’s new YouFit On Demand app, scheduled to launch on Nov. 15, will cost $4.99 as a standalone membership or as an add-on to basic and premium memberships. A $39.99 Premium+ membership will include the On Demand app and access to the EatLove nutrition service.
Currently, YouFit clubs are operating at about 80% of their pre-pandemic volume, Vahaly said. Members are avoiding congestion by spreading out their workout times throughout the day.
Planet Fitness’ health strategy
Planet Fitness, one of the world’s largest gym chains with 2,170 locations, is pivoting to a health and wellness strategy that it believes will resonate as we move out of the pandemic, CEO Chris Rondeau told investors last month.
Consumers “are realizing that … being overweight or out of shape or not taking care of your health is a contributing factor in the hospitalization and proportion of deaths,” he said.
The company’s membership has increased by 700,000 since April 1. Forty percent are first-time members, he said. “You’re really getting people off the couch for the first time, and those are the people who really need our help.”
Leaders of the publicly-owned company credited that success to its “bricks and clicks” strategy of engaging home-bound members with online fitness classes, then convincing them to use the app to upgrade to in-person memberships.
No fees are required to download the app and access a personal fitness tracker and dozens of at-home training videos. Once registered, consumers can use the app to sign up for a $5.99 digital-only membership that gives them premium content. They can also sign up for access to in-person facilities starting at $10 a month plus a $49 activation fee.
Between 65% and 75% of new members are joining through the company’s app and website compared to just 30% to 39% in 2019, Rondeau said. “The world has changed,” he said. “And I think this is something that’s going to stick around.”
LA Fitness expands discount brand
Not to be left out, LA Fitness, a chain of full-service clubs with higher membership fees but more amenities like basketball and racquetball courts, Zumba classes and swimming pools, has been rebranding some of its locations as Esporta clubs.
The company’s website shows that 41 of 108 LA Fitness clubs are now Esporta clubs. As part of the rebrand, the company is promoting a $9.99 monthly single-club membership rate that matches those of YouFit and Planet Fitness. The catch: Basic members only get access to strength training and cardio equipment. And they must pay a $99 initiation fee. Esporta enrollees can avoid the $99 fee by opting for a $24.99 monthly membership that includes use of all facilities, a group training session and a personal training session.
LA Fitness club memberships, by contrast, start at $35.99 a month for access to a single club with no initiation fee, or $35.99 a month plus a $49 initiation fee for access to all clubs in the state.
All bets are off if COVID-19 or a new variant comes roaring back this winter, Planet Fitness executives said. Industry members, meanwhile, are pushing Congress to approve a $30 billion relief fund to keep struggling fitness companies afloat. Though introduced in a congressional bill last February, the fund was not included as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted last spring, nor is it part of any spending package under negotiation this fall.
“During closures, health clubs were expected to pay their bills in full with little or no revenue coming in,” said trade association spokeswoman Sami Smith. “As one of the first industries to close and last to reopen, the fitness industry hasn’t received any direct relief from Congress.”